US Supreme Court rules lethal injections constitutional

The US Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday that the state of Kentucky’s lethal injection procedures are constitutional. The ruling is likely to be followed by moves in various US jurisdictions to resume executions. However, the ruling is unlikely to stop litigation on this issue, according to Amnesty International.

Executions in the USA have been suspended since late September 2007 as states waited for the Supreme Court’s decision. A majority of the 36 death penalty states, and the federal government, use the same three-drug combination as Kentucky to anesthetize, paralyze and kill the condemned prisoner.

Officials in a number of states, including Florida, Georgia, Arizona and Ohio, have already suggested that the Baze v. Rees decision should clear the way to a resumption of executions in their jurisdictions. The likelihood of execution dates being set soon in states such as Texas and Alabama is high.

Amnesty International opposes the death penalty in all cases, unconditionally, regardless of the method chosen to kill the condemned prisoner. The organization says that there is no such thing as a humane, fair, reliable or useful death penalty system.

Chief Justice Roberts indicated that, in future cases, a stay of execution on the lethal injection issue would likely only be granted if “the condemned prisoner establishes that the State’s lethal injection protocol creates a demonstrated risk of severe pain.”

“He must show that the risk is substantial when compared to the known and available alternatives. ”

Justice Stevens, concurring in the judgment, nevertheless wrote that he had assumed the Supreme Court’s decision would bring the debate about lethal injection as a method of execution to a close.

“It now seems clear that it will not,” he concluded.  He went on to say that he was convinced that the case would also generate wider debate about the death penalty in general.

He wrote that his own experience had now led him to the conclusion that “the imposition of the death penalty represents the pointless and needless extinction of life with only marginal contributions to any discernible social or public purposes. A penalty with such negligible returns to the State is patently excessive and cruel and unusual punishment.”

In similar vein, Justice Breyer pointed to the wider concerns about the death penalty, beyond the issue of any risks associated with lethal injections:

“The death penalty itself, of course, brings with it serious risks, for example, risks of executing the wrong person, risks that unwarranted animus (in respect, e.g., to the race of victims), may play a role, risks that those convicted will find themselves on death row for many years, perhaps decades, to come… But the lawfulness of the death penalty is not before us.”

Justice Stevens pointed out that the risk of executing the innocent “can be entirely eliminated” by abolishing the death penalty.

Amnesty International emphasized that to end the death penalty is to abandon a destructive, diversionary and divisive public policy that is not consistent with widely held values. A recent indicator of this was the landmark UN General Assembly resolution in late 2007 calling for a worldwide moratorium on the death penalty.

The organization pointed to the words of Justice Stevens in the Baze opinion: “State-sanctioned killing is becoming more and more anachronistic.”